Britain’s governing Conservative Party looks increasingly clueless and is taking the country in a direction not seen since the 1990s. The populist right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is on the march with an agenda that is vehemently anti-Europe, anti-immigration and isolationist. It has stirred strong passions among British voters, angry at the decline in their living standards and estranged from mainstream politics. Not knowing what to do, Prime Minister David Cameron’s party has adopted UKIP’s strident rhetoric and is preaching policies normally associated with extremist groups.
Haunted by the prospect of defeat at the next general election, the prime minister and his associates are trying to outdo UKIP. Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democratic Party, can only protest or maintain embarrassing silence, but cannot shake off accusations of enabling a Conservative minority to stay in power.
In an attempt to hold the party together, Prime Minister Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union after the next general election. His frontline is busy attacking Europe’s institutions, whether part of the EU or the European Court of Human Rights that predates the European Union and is quite separate.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced at the recent party conference that the United Kingdom would defy the European Court’s rulings and apply laws passed in the British Parliament. The European Court of Human Rights was initially established in 1959. The Human Rights Convention itself was signed in 1950. Britain played a leading role in the creation of both. The United Kingdom joined the European Common Market, the EU’s predecessor, under a Conservative government in 1973. A two-thirds majority approved Britain’s continued membership in a referendum two years later.
The Conservative leadership today prefers to avoid any mention of these historic facts. Party grandees like ex-cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve are critical of the leadership’s approach, but have been side-lined. Their criticisms are not likely to make much difference. They do, however, strengthen the context in which the Conservative Party operates. UKIP’s firebrand leader Nigel Farage mocks Cameron’s government for adopting copycat policies. It underscores the government’s weakness.
Writing in the Observer, a senior commentator William Keegan described the Conservative Party as remarkably shameless. Keegan was particularly scathing about Prime Minister Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne, who suggested that they would cut the benefits of the unemployed and the working poor to enable the government to reduce taxes for the better off.
After Prime Minister Cameron, George Osborne is the most powerful member of the cabinet. He controls spending across all government departments. Osborne is sometimes mentioned as a future leader of the Conservative Party. As well as trade unions, the old enemy, Osborne has now declared war on charities trying to fill the gap created by the government’s welfare cuts. He recently told a gathering of business leaders that they must defend the economy from “an anti-free market movement led by trade unions and charities”.
Conservatives were indignant when the British charity Oxfam issued a poster in June suggesting that a combination of “zero-hours contracts, high prices, benefit cuts and unemployment” had created a critical situation in the country. There is a feeling in the party that charities have become too political and too left-wing. When the Conservatives last ruled Britain from 1979 to 1997, the trade unions were their enemy number one. The neo-Thatcherite generation in the present government has added charities to the list of enemies.
To those who remember the state of British politics in the 1980s and 1990s, it looks like a repeat performance by the militant right-wing under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In her early years as leader, Thatcher encouraged her militant admirers, who ultimately contributed to her isolation and downfall in 1990. They also caused trouble for her successor John Major and ensured that the party was defeated in 1997. The party had to wait until 2010 for another victory.
After John Major’s resignation as leader when the Conservatives were defeated at the 1997 general election, the party’s behaviour grew even more bizarre. Moderates lost out; the party was soon in the grip of militants, with Thatcher openly encouraging them to go for an extreme agenda against the European Union, immigrants and public services. During the leadership of Major’s successor William Hague, they used absurd tactics to keep their core support and scared centrist voters in the process.
Wrapped up in the British flag, volunteers could be seen telling people that there were “only so many days left to save the Queen’s head on the pound coin” and they must “vote Conservative to save Britain from German and French domination. Labour won another resounding victory and William Hague resigned as Conservative leader. He is now in the cabinet of Prime Minister David Cameron.
Britain is again at a crossroads. Vital public services, including the national health system, are in crisis. Talk of economic recovery is folly, based on claims that credible experts, sometimes government advisors, contradict. Poor and middle classes, under continuing squeeze, are angry and frustrated. The country is isolated in Europe and has chosen to be on America’s coattail even more noticeably.
The ruling Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are moving more and more to the right. Moderates are out, being replaced by an aggressive generation of Conservative politicians who bank on shrill rhetoric and unholy alliances. With the next general election just over six months away, the day of reckoning is fast approaching.